Widener Library, a fixture of Harvard Yard.

Building the Future: Creating a 21st-Century Campus on 17th-Century Foundations

By Yael M. Saiger, Crimson Staff Writer
Widener Library, a fixture of Harvard Yard. By Kathryn S. Kuhar

It is hard to make it through four years of college without stopping by Widener or Lamont, two of the most frequented libraries on Harvard Yard. Yet although they are some of the most frequently visited spots on campus, few, if any students, become familiar with the specifics of the buildings' architecture. Of several dozen students asked about the number of columns in front of Widener's facade, only a small portion could answer the correct number: 12.

It is easy for the campus to fade into the background, but Harvard is packed with varied and vibrant architecture, and the college’s campus certainly has an impact on its students. Maxwell N. Benegas ’19 said the campus appealed to him when he first visited Harvard. “The architecture here has a very cozy, old-fashioned feeling to me,” he said.

Zak Gingo, Harvard’s Senior Director of Building Operations, believes that campus architecture impacts students, whether they are conscious of it or not. “I think when students are considering going to college, they care about the built environment,” Gingo said. But he also says that students are not aware of how much goes into maintaining that environment for them. “When I was a student, I had absolutely no idea of the massive amount of mechanical equipment, and building control systems that run that equipment, and what it takes to keep those up and running in order to keep the buildings going,” Gingo said.

According to Stephen Kieran, a partner at Philadelphia-based architecture firm KieranTimberlake and one of the primary architects working on Harvard’s House Renewal Program, constructing a university is far from simple. “They are collections of not just buildings, but also landscapes and urban relationships that are built across time and have layers of history to them,” he said.

A Campus Under Construction

Harvard’s campus is ever-changing. Right now, resources are being pumped into the House Renewal Program, plans are underway for the construction of a new campus at Allston, and the Smith Campus Center and the Sackler Center are both under renovation.

For the House Renewal Program, architects must stay true to history, but they have more freedom to redesign the basement levels.
For the House Renewal Program, architects must stay true to history, but they have more freedom to redesign the basement levels. By Kathryn S. Kuhar

In fact, according to Alex Krieger, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, the university is changing more quickly than ever. “Buildings used to be built for hundreds of years and somehow the assumption was that they’d always stay the same and operate the same way. It’s much more dynamic now,” Krieger said. As the rates of change in education, pedagogy and technology speed up, buildings are expected to keep up. Krieger explained that this means building must be built to be more multipurpose and flexible.

Krieger previously served as the senior planning advisor for the design of the new School of Engineering and Applied Sciences campus in Allston, a long-term project which, though slowed by the recession, is now scheduled to be completed by 2020. Krieger says that planning for Allston involved a debate between continuing historical trends and pursuing innovation. In the quest to find an architect for the new campus, the committee ultimately needed to choose between two firms, one of which presented an innovative building, while the other presented a more traditional red-brick edifice. The professors who would work in the building favored the former, but the committee and President Lawrence Summers supported the latter. “It was a classic case of yin yang, and the committee struggled mightily over the decision,” Krieger said.

In the end, the innovative design prevailed, and that, according to Krieger, is as it should be. “The fact that the people who were going to be in the building seemed to be more interested in the more innovative structure won the day,” Krieger said. But Krieger also feels that as Allston is separated spatially from the rest of the campus, it is well suited to foster innovation.

“It was going to be a major building for a innovative high-technology set of users in its own location, quite a bit far from the rest of campus, and so I felt that it should establish a new tradition,” he said. “I might have felt quite differently if it was being built closer to the proverbial Yard.”

The House Renewal Program has almost directly opposite considerations. The project aims to restore the undergraduate Houses, beginning with the eight river Houses. The renovated Winthrop House was recently reopened and Lowell House is now under construction. With this project, preservation is high on the list of priorities. “Since it is a national registered historic district, everything that is related to the exterior of the buildings really is subject to very, very high preservation standards,” said Kieran, one of the main architects working on the project. According to Kieran, the Cambridge Historical Commission monitors work on the facades, and Harvard has its own list of historically notable interiors. But some creative freedom still remains. “Within the buildings there are places where contemporary insertions can be appropriate, provided they are skillfully designed in a kind of historical dialogue with the old work,” said Kieran.

Meg G. Panetta ’17, who was on the House Renewal Committee as a student in Winthrop, said she noticed the attention allocated to matching colors and wood tones well. “I’m not really an architect so I don’t think a lot about that, but I do think there are some nice smaller features of Winthrop that have been kept, like the stairwells with the big skylights that are just pleasant for people to be in generally,” Panetta said.

While preserving history can be beneficial, it also poses challenges, as old buildings need to be brought up to modern codes of safety and accessibility. “Some of it is the challenge of taking old buildings and trying to figure out how to use them in new ways,” said Elizabeth R. Leber, a partner at Beyer Blinder Belle and another senior architect on the project. Each part of the building must be considered differently. “We’re trying to make new spaces feel new and have old spaces retain their sense of history,” Leber said.

An Eye to the Past

Given the campus’s historical significance, maintaining and updating its buildings comes with many responsibilities. “When you’re designing a campus such as Harvard, which has centuries of tradition and centuries of existing context, you have to be very attentive to that,” Krieger said. “That does not mean that you say, ‘My God, I can only use red brick,’ or, ‘I have to plant ivy around all of the exterior walls.’ It doesn’t have to be quite that literal, but you have to develop a sensitivity to all that has happened before.”

In the end, every construction project, from the Allston expansion to the House Renewal Program, must consider how to marry past and future. “That’s the sort of dilemma or that’s the kind of dialectic relationship,” Krieger said. “When, in designing at Harvard, do you want to be most faithful to all the traditions and expectations that come with the campus, and when can you introduce something new?”

In some sense, however, these decisions are already made for Harvard, by the Cambridge Historical Commission. Many buildings at Harvard are designated as historically significant in one way or another. The undergraduate Houses, for example, are all on the National Register of Historic Places. Other edifices are simply part of Cambridge’s historic districts. “I’ve dealt with the university dozens, if not hundreds, of times on buildings and projects that are as large as the restoration of Memorial Hall, the Fogg Museum, or as small as repointing a brick wall, or replacing a handrail or a line of steps on buildings throughout the campus,” said Charles M. Sullivan, Executive Director of the Commission.

Sullivan explained that Harvard has not always been as cognizant of history as it is now. In the 1970s, the Cambridge Historical Commission surveyed the city with the aim of creating a list of buildings for the National Register of Historic Places. Harvard was at first reluctant, but by 1986, after much discussion, the University and the Commission agreed on a list of buildings and on a set of rules for how to approach construction and renovation of those buildings.

Sullivan acknowledges that historical preservation does place some limitations on the college. He explained that Harvard expanded rapidly after World War II, but eventually was forced to stop. “The city built up a resistence to university expansion and ultimately around 2010 or a little before, I think the university realized that the limits of expansion in Cambridge had been reached,” Sullivan said.

Given that resistance and the limitations of building in a historic district, Harvard must be very intentional with its renovations and expansions. “The constraints on development in Cambridge now, I think, mean that Harvard has to use its own campus more intensively. But there are constraints to doing that in line with historic preservation,” Sullivan said. “It limits the freedom of the university to expand perhaps as much as they would like in Cambridge.”

In the end, however, Sullivan said that he believes history is worth sacrificing for. “Buildings typically that universities have put up in every era have been intended to represent the best or most evocative architecture of the era or of the university’s mission,” Sullivan said.

Gingo also appreciates the strict rules surrounding historical preservation. “I think preserving historic character is extremely valuable, particularly for a campus like Harvard’s where you have buildings that predate the American Revolution,” Gingo said. “Having a process by which significant changes are reviewed helps keep you from giving into the fad of a given day.”

According to Gingo, Harvard’s commitment to history does not interfere with operational efficiency. “When you think of efficiency, oftentimes you are thinking about equipment like motors and fans and electrical transformers and things like that—kind of the guts of the building, and they are usually hidden away in a mechanical room, like in the attic or in the basement, where working on them does not impact the historical fabric of the building. So there’s usually, at least in my experience, not a lot of conflict there,” he said.

Presidential Projects

Since 1636, Harvard’s campus has gone through lulls and surges of architectural expansion. Its development has been characterized by distinct periods of construction, each with its own character. “Harvard has a longer history than most and has a very eclectic collection of buildings from every period of American architecture. And those together make an environment that has enormous cultural significance for the country, as well as for Cambridge and for the university,” Sullivan said.

The addition of chairs into the Yard has transformed the space.
The addition of chairs into the Yard has transformed the space. By Kathryn S. Kuhar

Expansions are often associated with the presidents who oversee them, but according to Krieger power has historically lain just as often in the hands of the deans. With this in mind, University President Drew G. Faust recently instituted design review committees, composed of architects and other professionals. The motivation was a “fear that the university has sort of lost control over its own future relative to its physical environment,” Krieger said.

While they don’t have absolute power, the presidents still exert some influence. “President Neil Rudenstine was interested in promoting contemporary architecture and supported the hiring of the cutting edge modernist architects,” Sullivan said. According to Krieger, who worked with the former president on the Allston expansion, Summers was a self-described “red brick guy.” President Nathan Pusey, for his part, oversaw an expansion in the 1960s that very intentionally embraced modernist architecture, yielding buildings like Mather and the Carpenter Center. “[Pusey] came from Ohio...and he felt a little bit out of sorts with the rest of the kind of long traditions of New England Brahmin leadership of Harvard,” Krieger said.

Faust too is in the process of leaving her fingerprints on campus. According to Krieger, while she has perhaps a less specific stylistic vision than past presidents, Faust does seem to have a specific set of goals, goals that are in line with the changing nature of education in the twenty-first century. “Drew Faust has been kind of brilliant. She maybe thinks less about buildings or edifices and thinks more about how to animate the common areas of the campus,” Krieger said.

Faust supported the placement of chairs in Harvard Yard, transforming it into usable space. “It used to be kind of empty quite frankly, because all you would do was walk through there,” said Krieger. Faust spearheaded the initiative to create the Science Center Plaza, simultaneously creating a new space for casual interaction and joining the Yard to the Science Center. She also decided to renovate the Smith Campus Center. “Drew has focused a lot of her attention on the campus of late, in creating places for students to hang out and interact with each other and enjoy each other’s company and so forth. So it’s not as much about the buildings themselves,” Krieger said.

Futures and Possibilities

Farshid Moussavi, Professor in Practice in the Department of Architecture at the GSD, is working to rethink campus architecture in a 21st-century environment. According to Moussavi, learning has moved outside the classroom, become more informal, and become more focused on peer-to-peer interaction. “With our new tools, the classroom extends beyond the interior environment,” Moussavi said. “All of the spaces of a school, including its corridors, have the potential for the kind of interaction that leads to knowledge crossover and therefore the production of new ideas.”

In a world of fast-paced change and fluid professions, colleges across the country have put emphasis on interdisciplinary learning, but this shift poses logistical problems.“The university is structured...into faculties that separate knowledge and don’t really allow for those crossovers,” Moussavi said. “It’s a dilemma and I think that we do need to specialize, but we also need to allow for cross-fertilization and the production of new areas of knowledge.”

Moussavi believes that there is value to interdisciplinary interacting in physical space. “When you communicate on the web, there is a kind of delay between one person writing, the other person writing back, etcetera, etcetera. In physical space everything is much more instant, and I think ideas can flow in a less structured way,” she said.

Moussavi draws inspiration for her model of a college campus from Gund Hall at the GSD. “Under the word design there are three different departments: landscape, urban design, and architecture,” Moussavi said. “They deal with design at different scales and each one of them has their own history and instruments.” But where the school administratively separates the departments, Gund Hall physically combines them.“The school environment puts them in one single space with no hierarchy,” Moussavi said. “As you’re moving through the school, it’s a little bit like you’re surfing through different scales of design. And consciously or unconsciously, I think it raises a certain awareness of the relationship between the different scales.” This model, Moussavi believes, could be extended to the rest of campus as well.

Gund Hall places different departments on distinct levels but in one large open space.
Gund Hall places different departments on distinct levels but in one large open space. By Kathryn S. Kuhar

Moussavi is not alone in her conviction. “There is a desire to encourage interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work,” said Leber, speaking about her work on the House Renewal Program. “More exposure by more people to more fields just makes for a richer educational experience. So even if you have a science building, if it has something in it that attracts people to hang out there, say it’s a great cafe at the base of the buildings, or good study rooms that people have access to. Even a building that might be particular in what it is teaching can still play a role in the greater university community.”

Krieger agrees. “Whether it happens in a classroom or in a lounge or a cafeteria, you should encounter people unlike yourselves,” he said.

In the end, Moussavi says, the key is just giving serious consideration to the physical campus. “I think it’s about having aspirations…and setting your goal at the very, very highest level, just like we try to do with our pedagogy…I think that we need to extend that level of ambition everywhere,” she said.

—Staff writer Yael M. Saiger can be reached at yael.saiger@thecrimson.com.

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